What time is it now? Seems like a simple question, you might say as you glance at your watch, cell phone, or the clock on the wall. We all learned to tell time in kindergarten. How hard can it be?

The answer might surprise you. Telling time can be the hardest thing you do all day. When you watch your to-do list spin out of control, surf the Internet during the afternoon post-lunch coma, yawn through a long meeting, or look in despair at that pile of dishes in the kitchen sink, or at the pile of snow outside your front door, what you are really struggling with is telling what time it is.

Allow me to explain.

Telling time is about knowing what needs to be done right now. At some point during your day, surely there is time to have a meal, time to return a client’s phone call, and time to listen to your spouse tell you about his or her day. Being present to what time it is, and actually doing what needs to be done, is the ultimate secret to productivity, contentment, and general well-being. It sounds simple enough, but how often do you find yourself staring out of the window instead of making a follow-up call to a prospect, thinking about your upcoming vacation while sitting in a work meeting, or ruminating about tasks left incomplete while your child tells you a story? Devoting your full attention to what is in front of you can be hard, especially if you would rather be doing something else. That ever-elusive “something else” is usually more pleasant, beautiful, quiet, easy, and worthy of your time than whatever is in front of you. You would rather sit on a tropical beach sipping a drink than deal with an annoying client. You would rather relax on the couch than wash those crusty dishes. You would rather be working on a glamorous world-changing project than tackle lowly administrative tasks. It would not be a stretch to say that we spend much of our waking time pining, wishing, comparing, judging, and otherwise distancing ourselves from the present reality. This is the true nature of the block that holds you back from being productive.

Can you get better at telling time? Absolutely. Here are five steps to get you started.

  • 1.       Clarity on your values.

Clarity on values makes decision making easier. What is most important to you? Is it accomplishment? Harmony? Decisiveness? Doing the right thing? Clarity on what is important helps establish priorities, so that the order of what appears in front of you can fall into place naturally.

  • 2.       Clarity on what you need.

As Doug put in his book, “Grow on Purpose: The Nine Disciplines of Sustainable Growth”, behavior is driven by an urge to meet a need, and unmet needs will demand attention. Meeting your needs is essential for healthy function and growth, so spend some time thinking about what you need, whether in terms of financial resources, human connection, personal achievement, or self-care. Be honest with yourself about what you need, and remember that your needs are not wrong. Missing out on what is essential for your sustenance will sabotage you in the long run.

  • 3.       Clarity on what really must get done.

Be ruthless with your to-do list. Guard it fiercely against intrusions of all kinds by asking yourself hard questions. Does this really need to be done today? Do I have to be the one doing this? Why have I moved this action to tomorrow every day for the past two weeks? Weed out any and all items on your list that do not belong there – a shorter list that reflects the reward value and urgency of tasks at hand is a recipe for getting things done.

  • 4.       Judge not.

Discernment is about seeing clearly. Judgment can load the picture with heavy baggage of meaning, if you let it. The long litany of unread e-mails in your inbox can mean that you have not been diligent (“If I was good at my job, I would have read these e-mails when they first came in”). The dishes in the sink can mean that you have not worked hard enough today (“Why can’t I keep up with the housework?”). Neither one of those serves you.  In order to devote your attention to the task at hand, you may have to let it just be what it is, without any added layers of meaning. An unread e-mail is just that – so read it, respond if necessary, and move on to the next one.

  • 5.       Taking it one step at a time.

The reality is that this is what you do all the time, while telling yourself that you are “multitasking” or “juggling priorities”. The only way anything is ever accomplished is one thing at a time. So choose one thing and do that. Then choose another. No matter what your title or your project is, you only have one job, and that is to focus your undivided attention on what is in front of you.

Above all else, remember that you are not the creator of time, only the reader of it. Work when it is time to work. Rest when it is time to rest. There is time for everything that is truly important in your day, when you pay attention to telling time.